The Romantic era / The music of the mid nineteenth century

In the mid 19th century we find two centers of musical activity, Germany and France. In France, a part from the work of Hector Berlioz, who is considered to be the only native French Romantic composer, Paris became an active meeting place and home of many foreign musicians. Chopin, Listz and Wagner to name a few. During this time opera and virtuoso performance flourished in Paris. One could hear and see the likes of the Italian opera composers, Rousinni, Donitzzetti, and Verdi. In addition, the performances of Chopin and Listz could be heard. German music became widely accepted during this period as well and one could hear the Shubert Lied replacing the popular French Romance One might also find the work of Beethoven being performed at the Conservatoire.
It’s in Germany, however, where the battle is waged between the "old" and the "new". The lines are drawn between the more traditional followers of Brahms and those who aspired to the innovations of Listz and Wagner. This is in no way an attempt to slight the contribution of Mendohlson, Shumann, Shubert and Brahms. Or to leave out the work of Chopin and Berlioz. But it’s Litsz and Wagner who are the pioneers so it is to them that we shall turn our attention In this context It seems most relevant to focus briefly on this "new music". For it’s here where we find the greatest influence on the not to distant 20th century.
We must than consider the work of Frantz Listz and Richard Wagner. It’s Their work that most fully embodies the ideals of the German Romantic. In their attempts to synthesize these ideals in their music, to express the beauty of nature and deep emotional states, they found it necessary to stretch the limits of traditional form and diatonic harmony. While incorporating the literary and programmatic elements as necessary parts of music, they made ever increasing harmonic and orchestral explorations. Stretching both the limits of traditional harmony and form. Moving toward increasing chromaticism and thus straining the limits of tonality.
For Listz, "music represented a means for the total expression of nature and feeling. In order to convey this he invented entirely new musical forms. The "Tone Poem" being the most famous. " He is quoted as saying, "My sole ambition is to hurl my javelin into the infinite space of the future. "p320(encyclopedia music). His greatest contribution is within the area of the piano. By enlarging the conventional range of the piano and taking it out of the drawing room , he reveals its potential power. As a romantic he was, "profoundly conscious of the existence and interpretation of the spiritual and the physical. "p320 (encyclopedia music). Harmonically he believed that no chord could sound absolutely foreign to a given key , no matter how far removed it may appear. In his later work he abandoned traditional forms of modulation. This is just one step away from atonality. He can be seen as a forerunner of 20th century music. p320.
Richard Wagner a close friend of Listz was also on a path that looked into the future. Attempting to create the "total art". One where the harmony is inseparable from the orchestration, the music is inseparable from the poetry. He successfully fuses these various elements into an integrated whole. Using Listz harmonic invention as a spring board for his own further development of a chromatic language, Wagner is credited with "presiding over the decline of diatonic harmony and inaugurating a new era which was later to lead to Shoenberg."p324(encyclopedia music).
Wagner wrote music criticism as well as theoretical works on music. Through these writings one can gain a sense of the theoretical reasons for his approach to music. Stemming from what D.Barenboim calls, "a great understanding for or intuition of acoustics. "p2 , Wagner develops two important concepts relevant to this paper. The first deals with the element of time and space in music and the second deals with the continuity of sound.
The element of time and space in music leads to considerations of tempo. For example, if in order to fully express the musical content within the context of a work, Wagner chose to slow the tempo , then in order to maintain the continuity of sound he would have to make a tonal compensation. This compensation leads directly to the color of the sound and more importantly to the weight of the sound. The weight of sounds seems to be a major concern of Wagners. As Barenboim points out, "The minute you talk about weight you also talk about harmony." For all its chromatiscim Wagner still lived in a tonal world and because of this, the harmonic fundamental carried more weight. "Tied to the gravity of the harmony, he was able to create more and more tension through the continuity of sound, and the imperceptible slowing down of the tempo went practically unnoticed. "p4 These ideas were developed to the extreme in his own work. Consequently these ideas had a tremendous influence on the interpretation of music up to the 1940’s.